Professor Lesley Yellowlees
Professor of Inorganic Electrochemistry, University of Edinburgh
Tell us about your background about your journey to where you are now?
I went to university in Edinburgh so I’ve had practically all my academic life here. I did work for a while in Australia and then got interested in solar energy. That then became my overriding research interest so yes, I’ve been around for a long time I suppose you’d say!
When I started getting involved with data, it was the days when we used punch hole cards, you know? You’d be working for days and then realise that you put a comma in the wrong place or whatever and had to start again, it was awful. Data and how you use data has come a long way since I first got involved. It’s changed for the better. On the other hand, there’s a downside to that, people want perfection. But the speed you can do calculations, and you can do it all from home, and that is all for the better.
So anyway, I ventured across the country to do a post-doc in Glasgow and then came back to Edinburgh at the School of Chemistry and did various things (laughs). I became Associate Dean for Recruitment in Science and Engineering and then later became the Head and then Vice Principal and Head of Science and Engineering at Edinburgh.
What does a typical day look like for you now?
I now do a lot of work promoting women and working for the Scottish Funding Council, so I’m not employed by the university anymore. I’m afraid I’m a serial believer in reinventing yourself.
So what’s the new invention?
Trying to help women see that they can have a great career in STEM – and why would you want to do that?
Jane Hillston at the University of Edinburgh has been a great role model in this area and she has been very willing to step up to the plate in to leadership positions. I can understand why women don’t want to take up senior leadership positions, it needs a lot of work at the moment.
I also sit on the board of the Scottish Funding Council and on the Court of Napier University – there’s lots of jobs to be done!
Are you involved much with research?
When I became Head of Chemistry in 2005, I started to take a back seat in doing practical chemistry. Then when I became Head of Science and Engineering, I stopped it altogether. I remember when I was being interviewed for Vice Principal, I was asked by the panel ‘but Lesley, what are you going to give up?’ – I was also about to become president of the Royal Society of Chemistry at the same time – and I said research. As hard as it was, they later said that was the right thing if I wanted to pursue the management side of things. It wouldn’t have been fair to my students, me being out and about all the time. Also, with a highly practical subject like Chemistry, if you’re not super applied that’s not great in terms of the health and safety side of things. So, anyway, my students got reassigned other principal supervisors when I had my career change that took me away from front-line research, which was sad, but you can’t do everything and life changes.
Lots of women in the interviews have said the same – that they have experienced challenges, even guilt, for progressing.
It is hard – but my favourite quote is ‘yes, you can do everything, but not all of it, at the same time’.
So is that what you would recommend to women and girls who are finding themselves at a crossroads with their education or career?
Knock at every door, try something new. Don’t be afraid to do something new and find people who will support you to do that. Don’t burn your bridges – that’s important, you won’t do that if you’re just growing and moving on. Never leave it so that you can’t go back – well, not that I ever went back – but it leaves opportunities, broadens them. People always understood where I was trying to do and go with things, even if it wasn’t working towards their direction anymore. I’ve always tried to own up to mistakes as well.
I have to say that one of the guiding lights for me is ‘will I regret it if I didn’t try?’
I always wanted to give it a go and most times, it worked out. Sometimes it didn’t (laughs) but that’s OK, most of the time it did and I had fun, it was great and for all that, I’m very grateful.
I would echo what others have said about having a supportive network around you. My children have always been hugely supportive of what I want to do. My colleagues, as well, male and female. You have to remember, when I started out, I didn’t have really any female colleagues.
That’s the way it was – I was the only female that graduated from my class and for a while, the only female in the School of Chemistry at the University of Edinburgh. Men have to be supportive as well, this isn’t a ‘woman’s problem’, it’s everybody’s.
I’ve had wonderful colleagues who have given me fantastic advice in abundance over the years. I didn’t always take it, but it was freely available, lots of people were willing to be sounding boards for my ideas.
What is the state of gender equality in your work?
In STEM, it’s not at all good! I’ve just finished chairing the Royal Society of Edinburgh’s report ‘Tapping All Our Talents’ – I urge everyone to read it – this shows over the past six years that it’s getting slightly better in some areas but in some areas, not at all. There’s a lot of work to be done. The Institute of Physics have done a lot of great work, by the way. Physics is an area which is bad for girls taking it up at school.
Chemistry is better at undergraduate level, in some cases 50:50, but only 10% of professors are female so there’s a huge leaky pipeline, a huge drop-off.
We’re far off parity in all areas of STEM – although it’s a huge debate whether it’s parity we should be specifically going for – but it’s should be more than 10%, for goodness sake – that’s ridiculous.
The problem isn’t just recruitment, as well – it’s also retainment, right?
Oh, absolutely. There’s less effort on retention and the lack of women in senior leadership. I’d rather focus my energy there because there’s less work going on. Everything is mainly focused on getting women and girls in rather than supporting them to stay. Culture change takes a long time if it’s going to work properly.
Another issue is confidence – apparently girls do just as well and often better than boys at STEM in schools but report much lower confidence.
That’s absolutely true. I went to an all-girls school – I do wonder what impact it had on me – but I never had my interest in science questioned. My father studied maths and physics at university so he my parents were very supportive. It wasn’t until I got to university that I really experienced the sexism out there. When I arrived as a woman doing chemistry, people said ‘why are you doing science?’ and I said ‘why shouldn’t I do it? I love it!’
That is shocking – you’d think it would get better at the more advanced stages of education.
It is shocking!
Well, yes – that isn’t the case. I do think that this whole culture that boys should do engineering and girls should do whatever, is ridiculous. I don’t understand it. I don’t think there is such a thing as a ‘boys’ job and a ‘girls’ job, there’s just a job. We need to educate parents better that the sciences is a place where girls belong, that the physical sciences are not just for boys.
Well, the natural sciences like biology don’t have as much of a problem because it’s always been seen as a more girly discipline but there’s nothing inherently feminine about biology. Biology also still has major issues in terms of women in seniority.
It’s such a shame that these opinions are out there, alive and well.
Are you confident it will improve?
Yes! We can’t just let it drift. We need hope and active involvement. We need to help society change its opinions around who belongs in STEM to make it an inclusive place for everyone.
It’s interesting, the interview participants have had different opinions on how to approach the issue…
I don’t’ agree with the ‘get on with it’ attitude.
People say to me ‘Lesley, we just need more girls taking up science at school and time will sort it’. But time hasn’t sorted it! Fixing it at the junior level does not mean it will be fixed at senior level and there is lots of evidence that backs that up.
We need intervention and we need role models, showing people that it is possible to have a fantastic career in STEM where you can reach the heights and shape the discipline, whatever it is you’re interested in. We can’t stand back and hope it will happen. That will not work.
What are you proud of at the moment?
I’m proud of my children. And for myself? (laughs) I was proud that I had a career and had a family and managed both. I was proud of the fact that I became President of the Royal Society of Chemistry. I was their first woman President in their 170+ year history. My peers voted me in and I felt proud that they believed in me so much – and it gave me a platform to really champion women. I’m very proud to say that after me, and currently, they have another woman President. I was also very proud when I became VC and Head, which again, allowed me to move the gender equality agenda.
I have a OBE (Order of the British Empire Award) and that was a proud day, too.
What was the best opportunity in your career thus far?
When the School of Chemistry took a punt on me in the 1980s when I had two children under the age of three. Looking back, thinking of what the environment and circumstances were like at the time – it wasn’t as common then as it is now – it was rare.
I still struggled but when they took a chance on me and offered me my job security, a permanent job. I then had a career path and I could see what I was doing.
It was difficult having a family and not having a permanent job, that was a hard time in my life.
Is there anything you wish you could do more of?
Go round and speak to young people at school and to be able to give them confidence. If you could bottle confidence, God you’d be rich! I want to say to people: grasp it, go for it, see where it takes you. Don’t be afraid.
That’s great advice! Do you have a hero or heroine?
I’ve looked up to many people, men and women. At schools, I had inspiring teachers. At university, I was blessed with senior people who believed in me and wanted me to succeed.
I like to find people I can personally relate to.
When I came to university as a woman doing chemistry, people said ‘why are you doing science?’ I said ‘why shouldn’t I do it? I love it!